Youth service cuts help criminals exploit young, says charity
Cuts to spending on youth services has helped create a climate where criminals can manipulate vulnerable youngsters into County Lines drug dealing, charity bosses say.
Years of cuts, which have sent national spending on youth services spiralling down from £1.4bn a decade ago to just under £429m in 2018/19, is taking its toll, YMCA bosses say.
And that is helping make young people in Norfolk vulnerable targets ripe for manipulation by criminals behind County Lines drugs dealing, they say.
The lack of investment means one in four people surveyed by the YMCA feel so afraid of gangs they are reluctant to spend time outside with friends after school.
More than half of those surveyed said they felt a main purpose of youth services should be to keep young people off the streets, but only 50c could identify any youth services near them.
And Tim Sweeting, chief executive of YMCA Norfolk said: ''While young people are forced to bear the brunt of drastic and increased cuts, they are expected to do so quietly and without consequence.
'These findings show that what they are crying out for are the very things youth services are specifically designed to provide.'
He said creeping cuts contributed to a situation where vulnerable young people were being exploited for County Lines drug dealing.
He said: 'The young people are rubbing along and then someone makes friends with them and gives them a sense of value. They might tell them a way they can make a quick bit of money and they get dragged into something.
'Before they know it, they have got themselves into something much bigger than they thought and then they need to stay in that lifestyle because they are at risk themselves or cannot see a way out.
'We have had instances where people have been preyed upon because they are vulnerable and the manipulators see them as easy pickings.'
Mr Sweeting said those young people often came from situations where they had no role models in their own family to look up - role models which could take the form of youth service workers if services were offered.
He said: 'Those workers are informal educators. They walk with these young people in their teenage years - to be the role models who value them and show them the positives.
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'But the government is talking about money for buildings. It's not the buildings we need, it's the youth workers.'
YMCA Norfolk has a campaign and a petition calling on the government to restore youth service funding to 2010 levels, to provide services for all, along with targeted services and to create a national youth service strategy.
The charity has 39 bus shelter adverts in around Norwich highlighting their campaign and petition.
Jazz Mickleburgh knows first hand the crucial role youth services can play - and said it is unfair to blame young people for getting involved in crime when there is a lack of support for them.
She said: 'Youth services have played a large role throughout my life so far. When I was 12 my mum passed away, and in the years following I was supported by several different organisations.
'This was a very difficult time for me and my family, and eventually I had to move out of home and into YMCA.
'While there, my confidence began to grow. I found my voice, became involved in the Norwich Youth Advisory Board and have had the opportunity to help lead YMCA youth clubs.'
She said: 'We are living in a time when youth services have never been needed more, young people are suffering, but the lack of funding doesn't always make it possible them to find the support they are desperately looking for.'
But John Fisher, cabinet member for children's services at Norfolk County Council, said funding for youth advisory boards, which commission services had not reduced since 2011.
He said: 'We have also continued to fund targeted youth support and have maintained the same level of funding for this for the last nine years. In addition, a great many of our other services are focused on meeting the needs of adolescents.
'We are currently working with key partners so that together we can ensure that our resources are having the greatest impact and meeting the needs of our young people at the right time and in the right place.
'Working with the office of the police and crime commissioner and other partners, we successfully bid for funding for a detached youth work team, which started work last year.'
He said the council would work with partners to make best use of government funding.
The petition is at www.ymcanorfolk.org